Class Acts: The $212,000,000 School

Led by Episcopal Academy and its new 120-acre campus, Philly’s elite private schools are in the midst of a billion-dollar building binge. Is it the rich getting richer, or the shape of education to come?

And yet, to see all this new construction as merely the Neiman Marcusing of education is not only ungenerous, but misses something more interesting and more important: namely, the challenge of educating our kids to compete in the 21st-century global economy, and the educational revolution that (maybe! possibly! hopefully!) has begun to meet it. In truth, the Great Private Schools Building Boom of the aughts may be less about keeping up with the Joneses than about keeping up with the Chens and the Patels and every other overseas force determined to eat America’s lunch in the coming decades.

Which is not to say that some of what’s being built isn’t just eye-popping. Joe Cox looks down at one of the shiny chrome sinks inside the Haverford School’s new lab space and laughs. “This,” he says, “would make a pretty nice wet bar.”

PRIVATE SCHOOLS HAVE A LONG and significant history in Philadelphia. The oldest, Penn Charter, was founded by Billy Penn himself in 1689 (making it the oldest Quaker school in the world, if you’re scoring at home). Episcopal was born in 1785; the Haverford School in 1884; the Main Line’s most prestigious girls’ schools, Agnes Irwin and Baldwin, in 1869 and 1888, respectively. Literally for centuries, the region’s Best Families (or maybe the Almost Best, since the true elite have always gone off to boarding school) have entrusted their kids to these institutions, no doubt hoping that what they learned and those they met there would help ensure yet another generation of Bestness. And the roster of those who’ve walked through the various hallways is impressive, from Pierre S. du Pont (Penn Charter, 1886) to Thacher Longstreth (Haverford, 1937) to Brian Roberts (Germantown Academy, 1977) to M. Night Shyamalan (Episcopal, 1988).

It was in hopes of continuing to educate Philadelphia’s ruling class that Episcopal Academy — long among the elite of the elite, where today you’ll find the progeny of folks like radio host Michael Smerconish, Comcast exec Steve Burke and ex-Sixers coach Larry Brown — began having discussions about its facilities more than a decade ago. “Episcopal, in doing a strategic plan back in 2000 or so, had said, ‘We aspire to be in the top tier of independent schools around the country — we want to be one of America’s great schools,’” Ham Clark, Episcopal’s lean, salt-and-pepper-haired head of school, says one afternoon as we chat in the lower-school gym at the soon-to-open new campus. The problem was that the school’s physical plant — including both its Merion campus, which had been Episcopal’s home since 1921, and its satellite Devon campus, opened in the ’70s — were decidedly non-elite. The buildings were technologically outdated; there was no place in which the entire school could come together at one time; the athletic facilities had been stretched to the limit ever since girls were admitted in the mid-’70s.